Somewhere along the line I came across an excellent working definition of intuition: the subconscious processing of consciously gathered facts. It can’t be forced; it can’t be called upon, but when it speaks, when it whispers, it can provide solutions.
I was reminded of this over this past weekend while working on my Jeep. I was replacing the front sway bar supports, which are rods about a foot long, a slight zig-zag bend in them, and a bushing at each end. A bolt at the top, a bolt at the bottom: an easy job, zip, zap, zowie, done.
Nuh-uh. Said bolts have been in place for 16 years, and the one on the top right did not want to come out. After loosening the rust’s grip on the nut with some PB Blaster, with the help of a cheater bar (a 2-foot long length of 1 1/2-inch pipe) for leverage, I was able to remove the nut. But the bolt was rusted firmly in place. I applied PB Blaster, solid taps to shake the rust free a few molecules at a time, more PB Blaster, heat from an electric heat gun, more PB Blaster, more solid taps, more heat from an electric heat gun, more PB Blaster, more solid taps, more of the same, for different periods of time over 24 hours, literally. I tried alternately a prying fork, a strong C-clamp, and a hammer to remove the bolt, and in the end, it came free with a satisfying whack with the hammer.
The starboard side (that’s the right side for ye dirty-fingered landlubbers) took a total elapsed time of 24 hours for the PB Blaster to do its thing; the port side (that’s the other right side for ye dirty-fingered landlubbers) took about 24 minutes for removal and re-installation.
But, I digress, sort of. While I was having great fun beating on the underside of my Jeep with a hammer, and while I was in a calm but nonetheless slightly frustrated mood, a friend of mine stopped by and suggested removing a cover plate on the front of the Jeep. I had already removed and replaced that cover plate, so although I knew it wouldn’t be helpful, with a socket wrench I spun out the four little screws holding it in. I put the cover on the hood and the four screws on the cover, one of which promptly rolled off into the pea gravel and dirt, coincidentally about the same color as the errant screw.
We looked and looked for that damn little screw. We even did a miniature SAR (Search and Rescue) grid pattern under and around the Jeep, being careful not to inadvertently cover it up or push it down with our footsteps, knees, or the heels of our hands. After I don’t know how long I called it off; it was just 1 out of 4 screws on a cover plate and no big deal at all until I got around to replacing it, or even if I ever got around to replacing it. I resumed heating and whacking on the rusted bolt.
The next day, after I had completed replacing both sway bar supports and reinstalling the cover plate with only 3 screws, I bent down by each front tire to put my wrench on the bolts one last time, more just to feel how tight they were than to tighten them any more. When I moved from one side to other and bent my knees to crouch down, my eyes zeroed in on the missing screw lying on the pea gravel. It was not in my line of sight at all, about 2 feet to the side of where I was working, but my eyes found it. It was well within the borders of our search grid, but when we were looking for it, we could not see it. I saw it by accident, found it just moments before I was going to pack my tools and get cleaned up.
No, this is not just pure coincidence, and I’ll tell you why.
First, although of course a healthy, genetically sophisticated eye can register information a lesser eye can’t (eagles have better vision than moles, no contest), the eye only gathers information for the brain. It is the brain that determines what that information means; it is the brain that determines the significance of a slight color or shape variation in a field of pea gravel.
Second, Navy watchstanders are taught to find something (like a man overboard) out on the water by looking for it but then to keep it in sight by looking just a little, little bit to the side of it. This is because the eye gets tired and sometimes does not send complete visual information to the brain even though both the eye and brain are focused on the very same thing.
Third, there’s a reason the old saying about solving a problem by “sleeping on it” is an old, old saying: it works! Sometimes your brain needs a little time to reorganize and relate and reconnect. How many times have you and your friends had the name of some movie actor on the tips of your tongues, said forget about it, and then a half-hour later in the middle of some totally different conversation someone shouts, “Eduardo J. Pumpernickle! That’s the guy!” The Napa Sutra’s SSTMS (Seeking Solutions Through My Subconscious) Nap style is only partly a joke, because it does actually work.
One last point: it is crucial to do everything you can to find the solution before you turn it over to your subconscious. How can your brain process information it doesn’t have? Explore every avenue toward a solution, then go do something else, or take a nap or go to sleep for the night. The next thing you know, you’ll have at least an idea toward the solution, maybe even a “lucky” idea . . .